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Blog post Part of special issue: The future of educational research in Wales

How can cognitive load theory be applied to the teaching of history?

James Wise

As a follower of a variety of educational blogs and their Twitter accounts, I became aware of a large number of people talking about the development of cognitive load theory and the impact it could have for teaching. When Dylan Wiliam tweeted (@dylanwiliam), ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know’, I decided to read about this further to see if it could be applied to the teaching of history.

Initial reading began with an article addressing why pupils make ‘silly’ mistakes in class (Ashman, 2015) and a chapter on cognitive load theory (Sweller, 2016). From this reading, I distilled the following.

  • Our working memory is very limited: we can generally hold around four-to-seven pieces of information at once.
  • Our working memory is what we use when learning new knowledge or completing tasks such as evaluating a source.
  • It easy to overburden our working memory by trying to learn a lot of information at once and apply that information. This is cognitive overload.

Our long term memory, however, is infinite.

  • When factual knowledge is stored in long-term memory, it allows for ‘chunking’. For example, rather than store the letters EMYROM as six individual letters, we could store it as one chunk – MEMORY.
  • When learning new knowledge, we relate the new information to information we already know. We retrieve this from our long-term memory and place it in our working memory.
  • If knowledge is secure in long-term memory, then we retrieve a ‘chunk’ of knowledge. For example, we’d retrieve the word ‘memory’ rather than the six letters that make it up. This frees up valuable working memory, as those six letters are recalled as one ‘chunk’.
  • Therefore, the more we can secure in long-term memory, the more we can ‘bring to mind’ in ‘chunks’ for our working memory to relate to.

My enquiry focussed on applying this theory to the teaching of a year 11 class. Through the course of teaching, I was aware that two topics with a very linear narrative – ‘Hitler’s rise to power’ and ‘Developments in the Middle East’ – were proving difficult for pupils to explain in terms of the causes of certain events, and to find links between events. In essence, they couldn’t analyse what they couldn’t remember. This then led me to question how we can best store knowledge in long-term memory, while being able to retrieve it quickly when needed.

Through various blogs and tweets, I came across, a resource produced by a group of cognitive scientists. From here, I became aware of the difference between ‘storage strength’ – how well knowledge is stored in long-term memory – and ‘retrieval strength’, how quickly that knowledge can be brought to working memory. They advocate that the best way to ensure both high storage strength and high retrieval strength is through what they term, ‘retrieval practice’ and ‘spaced practice’ (Sumeracki et al, 2018). Retrieval practice is the process of bringing previous information to mind, whereas spaced practice is the process of regularly revisiting previous learning over time. Low-stakes testing in various forms was suggested as a means of achieving these things.

‘I developed two strategies that would facilitate retrieval and spaced practice: ‘knowledge organisers’ and ‘mini-mind-map’ activities.’

Based on this, I developed two strategies for the department that would facilitate retrieval and spaced practice: ‘knowledge organisers’, a series of fact-based questions with answers, split into key topic areas; and ‘mini-mind-map’ activities, which involved pupils annotating around a collection of key terms, events and dates from memory. These resources were used as low-stakes tests and classroom activities, ensuring pupils were engaging in retrieval and spaced practice regularly.

Through discussion as a department, it was felt that pupils not only engaged with and enjoyed these activities, but that the impact on their retention and recall of factual knowledge had improved. Results from the low-stakes tests appeared to back this up. Pupil voice forum feedback was also very positive, with pupils noting an improvement in their ability to undertake new learning as well as an improvement in analysis and evaluation of what they had previously learned.

Through undertaking this process, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of long-term memory when learning something new: we learn new knowledge by applying it in some way to existing knowledge. Moreover, existing knowledge is crucial for more evaluative or critical thought. Techniques such as ‘retrieval’ and ‘spaced practice’ allow for the transfer of knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. Not only does this free up working memory, but it also allows that secure knowledge to aid new learning.


Ashman, G. (2015). Why Students Make Silly Mistakes in Class (and what can be done). Retrieved from:

Sumeracki, M., Weinstein, W., Nebel, C., Kuepper-Tetzel, C. & Kaminske, A. (2018). Home. Retrieved from:

Sweller, J. (2016). Story of a Research Program. In S. Tobias, J. D. Fletcher & D. C. Berliner (eds.), Acquired Wisdom Series. Education Review, 23.